Language, Philosophy, recent
comments 143

The Boy Who Inflated the Concept of ‘Wolf’

One of Aesop’s fables is about a shepherd boy who, out of boredom, repeatedly cries “Wolf!” when no wolf is present. As a result, the villagers lose faith in his testimony, and no one listens to his warnings when a real wolf shows up to devour his flock. The story shows why it’s bad to lie and why it’s in our interest to be honest. But lying is not the only manipulation of language that degrades trust. Consider a slightly different story.

Suppose that instead of one shepherd boy, there are a few dozen. They are tired of the villagers dismissing their complaints about less threatening creatures like stray dogs and coyotes. One of them proposes a plan: they will start using the word “wolf” to refer to all menacing animals. They agree and the new usage catches on. For a while, the villagers are indeed more responsive to their complaints. The plan backfires, however, when a real wolf arrives and cries of “Wolf!” fail to trigger the alarm they once did.

What the boys in the story do with the word “wolf,” modern intellectuals do with words like “violence.” When ordinary people think of violence, they think of things like bombs exploding, gunfire, and brawls. Most dictionary definitions of “violence” mention physical harm or force. Academics, ignoring common usage, speak of “administrative violence,” “data violence,” “epistemic violence” and other heretofore unknown forms of violence. Philosopher Kristie Dotson defines the last of these as follows: “Epistemic violence in testimony is a refusal, intentional or unintentional, of an audience to communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange owing to pernicious ignorance.”1

What Dotson calls “epistemic violence” isn’t violence according to ordinary usage or the dictionary. If intellectuals can commandeer the word “violence,” then presumably they can do the same with stronger words. So why not call epistemic violence “epistemic rape”? Indeed, why not “epistemic genocide”? After all, genocide is destroying a people in whole or in part, and part of destroying a people is destroying its voice. Maybe that can be done through subtle acts of silencing. This is absurd, of course, but there’s no principled way to stop moves like this if we accept coinages like “epistemic violence.”

The word “gaslighting” has also been abused in this way. The term originated with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, which was later adapted into movies in Britain and the United States, both named Gaslight. The plot centers around a woman who begins to lose her grip on reality because of her husband’s pathological lying. According to Dictionary.com, to “gaslight” someone is: “to cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation.” Gaslighting is characterized by pervasive, blatant lying. The perpetrator might confidently deny that the victim heard him say something that he clearly said moments ago.

Some intellectuals define “gaslighting” so loosely that it need not involve outright lying; this way, speech they dislike can be called “gaslighting.” Two professors of political science at Seattle University write: “Just as the process of white supremacy does not require those who are complicit to understand the racist nature of their actions, awareness is also not determinative of whether the process of racial gaslighting is taking place.”2 Examples of racial gaslighting, according to them, include dominant groups “tone policing” minorities who have every right to be angry about their oppression and—apparently—expressing any conservative opinion about race.3

Philosopher Rachel McKinnon also does this. After accurately describing how the word “gaslighting” entered the language and what it is usually taken to mean, she writes:

However, this isn’t the kind of gaslighting I am interested in for the purposes of this chapter. Instead, I’m interested in the more subtle form, often unintentional, where a listener doesn’t believe, or expresses doubts about, a speaker’s testimony. In this epistemic form of gaslighting, the listener of testimony [sic] expresses doubts about the speaker’s reliability at perceiving events accurately.4

McKinnon presents the following as a case of such “subtle” gaslighting. A trans woman, Victoria, thinks that James is deliberately failing to use her preferred pronouns, and pronounce her name correctly, in order to demean her. Her colleague, Susan, doubts this interpretation and suggests Victoria might be too emotional and primed to hear verbal slights (consistent with a stereotype about trans women). This denial of Victoria’s authoritative perspective supposedly renders Susan a gaslighter. Of course, since we all get things like this wrong, Susan might be doing the right thing by offering a different point of view. Even if Susan is misguided, her words are no more a subtle form of gaslighting than a wasp is a subtle form of wolf, or an insult is a subtle form of murder.

Because “gaslighting” is a label for a kind of bad behavior that has no other convenient designation, inflating this word’s meaning hampers our ability to communicate. Words that are abused in the way that “violence” and “gaslighting” are being abused cannot even be useful rhetorical tools for very long, since their negative associations depend upon the meanings they have prior to these manipulations. At some point, new words will need to be inflated to replace the uselessly inflated terms. Thus, semantic activists must continually comb the land in search of emotionally impactful words to be harvested, then left behind as desiccated semantic husks.

I will use the term concept inflation to describe what occurs when speakers loosen the usage of an emotionally impactful word in order to manipulate an audience.5 “Inflation” refers to the expansion of the number of things that a word refers to, but also suggests an analogy with currency inflation. When speakers expand the reference of a word in order to attach its associations to new things, they dilute the associations of the original word. Just as printing too much paper currency diminishes the value of the currency, concept inflation degrades the rhetorical effect of inflated words and phrases.

Concept inflation is a lot like lying. Immanuel Kant observed that lying couldn’t be effective in a world where everybody lied, since no one would be believed. Just as lying is parasitic on a truth norm, concept inflation is parasitic on norms of usage. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”6 Humpty Dumpty is wrong, however; if people could define the meanings of words as they liked, language couldn’t be useful for transmitting ideas.

Not every revision to language that expands a word’s reference amounts to concept inflation. Suppose that in a stratified society only killing a noble person is called “murder.” Reformers who believe in the equal moral worth of nobles and peasants might start calling the unjustified killing of peasants “murder” too. Because the original word was artificially gerrymandered to begin with, the revision is principled and not manipulative. Nor does designating the unjustified killings of peasants “murders” diminish the crime of killing nobles in similar circumstances.

Genuine concept inflation isn’t always wrong, either. In the mid-twentieth century, British colonial authorities demanded that Burmese subjects call them by the title of respect, “Thakin.” The locals undermined their authority by calling everyone “Thakin” so the title lost its significance.7 In this case, the locals inflated the word “Thakin” because its positive associations were being used for morally bad ends. There are bound to be good faith disagreements about when concept inflation is morally justifiable, but there are also fairly clear-cut cases of scurrilous inflation like the cases of “violence” and “gaslighting.” Other conspicuous examples include “racism,” “sexism” and “colonialism.”

Implicit hyperbole is an abuse of language similar to concept inflation. It occurs when an emotionally loaded word is appropriated as a term of art. Although the speaker disavows the word’s commonsense meaning, the original word lends rhetorical force to the stipulated term. Implicit hyperbole is the mirror opposite of euphemism, the substitution of inoffensive or indirect language for something more disturbing—e.g., “neutralize the objective” in place of “kill.”

Just as euphemism can dull appropriate emotional responses to things like killing, implicit hyperbole is a strategy for activating disproportionate or unreasonable moral responses. An example is “erase/erasure” in phrases like “erasing female POC voices,” “erasing black people,” and “the erasure of black bodies.” When the Trump administration took the position that the word “sex” in federal civil rights laws meant “biological sex” and not “gender,” some activists accused them of attempting to “erase trans people.”8

Not incidentally, when I think of “erasing people,” I think of totalitarianism: secret police taking people away in the dead of night never to be heard from again, or an entire group of people being expunged through genocide. Trump’s edicts did none of this to trans people, of course. Nor do the people criticizing Trump’s “erasure” say otherwise; the terminology insinuates a connection with these atrocities they dare not make explicit. Presumably, they use the word “erase” as a term of art because of, not despite, its baggage. The real message is whispered to the subconscious, and never officially acknowledged.

This sort of messaging might be useful for firing up opposition to the president’s policies, but it manipulates the audience by attempting to bypass their rationality. In rhetoric like this, the primary function of words is to transmit emotion, not meaning. Terms are hollow, like linguistic Trojan horses intended to smuggle associations into the conscious mind’s periphery without the higher brain noticing the security breach. It is, moreover, disrespectful to victims of totalitarian atrocities to exploit our horror at these events for rhetorical advantages.

Effective communication requires truthfulness, which is more than not telling lies. Speakers must also say, or at least be willing to say, what they really mean. George Orwell wrote that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”9 Implicit hyperbole requires insincerity. It can work only if the speaker’s primary message is not explicitly acknowledged. Both implicit hyperbole and concept inflation attempt to persuade not by presenting reasons, but by reshuffling the audience’s emotional associations. Both bend or break various norms of language for emotive effect. Both manipulate the audience, and make it harder for people to communicate.

Fortunately, we all have the means to combat the corruption of language. In a natural language, the community of speakers as a whole, not any central authority, is the ultimate arbiter of what is and what isn’t good speech. That is why Ingsoc, the totalitarian party that ruled Oceania in Orwell’s novel 1984, is so keen on replacing English with an engineered language, Newspeak. An ancient grammarian told Roman emperor Tiberius, “You, Cesar, have power to make a man a denizen of Rome, but not to make a word a denizen of the Roman language.”10 Tiberius may not have had this authority, but the community of Latin speakers of which he was a part did.

The shepherd boys in the modified version of Aesop’s fable could not have inflated the concept “wolf” without the acquiescence of the people in the village. They could have cried “Wolf!” but without a broader buy-in to the idea that “wolf” means “all threatening creatures” this would simply be a lie. That lie would have consequences—a few of the villagers would be temporarily deceived and all would eventually stop trusting the boys—but the damage would be localized. There would be no broader confusion in the language about what a “wolf” is.

We all have the responsibility to be good stewards of the languages we speak. We shape it when we decide to accept or reject new coinages or expressions. When we adopt new words that usefully label important things, like “gaslighting” in its original meaning, we improve the language. When we allow sloppy language to proliferate—for example, when we use the word “literally” to mean “metaphorically”—we degrade language and make it harder for everyone to communicate. This is analogous to polluting a common resource like the water or air.

If some way of using a word seems fishy, then take your own reaction seriously and make your concern known. Of course, your linguistic intuitions are no more authoritative than those of any other equally competent speaker. Such disagreement might indicate that a word’s meaning might be unsettled or vague. On the other hand, when the language seems very fishy, and the fishiness of the expression facilitates the speaker’s rhetorical goals, it’s reasonable to suspect sophistry. I’ve given several examples that seem to exhaust the principle of charity in this way. Faced with blatant abuses of language, we should be blunt: Damn your lies, that is no wolf!

 

Spencer Case has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes for QuilletteNational Review, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerJayCase

Notes and References:

1 Dotson, Kristie. 2011. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing” Hypatia vol. 26, no. 2., p. 238.
2 Davis, Angelique M. and Rose Ernst. 2017. “Racial gaslighting,” Politics, Groups, and Identities vol. 0, no. 0., p 4-5.
3 Davis and Ernst write: “We define racial gaslighting as the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalizes a white supremacist reality through pathologizing those who resist. Just as racial formation rests on the creation of racial projects, racial gaslighting, as a process, relies on the production of particular narratives. These narratives are called racial spectacles…. Racial spectacles are narratives that obfuscate the existence of a white supremacist state power structure.” (2017, 3). This language assumes that there is white supremacist state power structure, so that anyone who denies it by attributing racial disparities to anything other than racism can be accused of this. Indeed, they go on to mention the “anti-affirmative action narrative” that started in the 1990s as an example.
4 McKinnon, Rachel. 2017. “Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as a Form of Epistemic Injustice” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. New York: Routledge, p. 168.
5 A related notion is “concept creep” which refers to the expansion of terms over time. This may not or may not be intentional. By concept inflation, I have in mind a rhetorical move that is intentional. Concept inflation contributes to concept creep, but not all concept creep is due to the deliberate inflation of concepts for rhetorical gain. Even if it isn’t intentional, concept creep can hamper our ability to communicate.
6 Carroll, Lewis, Through Looking Glass, chapter 6, Humpty Dumpty.
7 Steinberg, D. I., Aung-Thwin, M. A. and Aung, M. H. ‘Myanmar: The Emergence of Nationalism,’ in Encyclopedia Britannica Online, britannica.com/place/Myanmar/The-emergence-of-nationalism
8 See, for example, this article on the ACLU webpage.
9 Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language” in A Collection of Essays by George Orwell. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.: New York, 1953, p. 167.
10 Pomponius Marcellus, quoted in Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man by Thomas Reid. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1969, p. 497.

143 Comments

  1. I disagree with your premise that intentional concept inflation can be right, when it’s actual concept inflation. Your example of Thakin, for example, is an exemplar of it NOT being concept inflation. The term means “Master” when translated to English, originally carrying the concept of “respected one” rather than “ruler of servants”, and its use, being forced to direct it at the British, was to create a subservient attitude and mentality in the Burmese peoples and acknowledge the British as their superiors. Their usage of it to everyone instead did dilute the reason that they were being forced to use it, but that did not dilute the original meaning in and of itself, as those subverting the British did so knowingly, as an act of rebellion.

    What DID dilute the meaning was both the actions of the British in forcing them to use the word as a form of elevated status for them specifically, and later the actions of the Dobama Asiayone, who reiterated the same usage that the British did while declaring that they had to replace the “slave mentality” that the British had instilled in them with a “master mentality”; they were explicitly in support of Bamar (majority ethnic group) supremacy, and in the murder of Burmese Indian (Indian ethnically, born in Burma; majority ancestors were servants for the British back during the 19th century) dock workers and their families by Bamars that claimed such workers took jobs that Bamars could have had. Their nationalism was focused on the same concepts of ethnic superiority that the British brought with them back then, rather than nationalistic integrity for all that were born and raised in Burma, regardless of how many generations had passed since they came there.

    • To clarify, in case I am misinterpreted: When I say that they did so knowingly, I mean that they know what the word actually meant and were not deliberately stretching the meaning in any actual use other than as an act of rebellion against the British; they did not accept the distortion of the meaning or think that the meaning had actually broadened to the distorted meaning that the British were attempting to force upon them, in other words.

    • Defenstrator says

      I don’t think the British brought the concept of racial superiority with them. People had been wiping out rival tribes/people before the British arrived. If anything the concept of nationalism distinct from racial groups in the form of Empire would have been the new concept.

  2. Eurocrat says

    He should have elevated the wolf into a tiger after a couple of times. This is what happens when one thinks that wolfs sit at the top of predatory hierarchy.

  3. George G says

    @ spencer

    “We all have the responsibility to be good stewards of the languages we speaks”

    I totally agree but I think a cause of current problems is that people like Philosopher Kristie Dotson don’t agree. They have a destination to reach (utopia) and the ends justify the means of getting there, the hollowing out of the meaning of words is for them a small price to pay.

    I’d add that, (no evidence for this its just a thought of mine), the dilution specifically of the word violence ,from real physical harm to include verbal or emotional distress, is the first step in justifying activists to respond to verbal “violence” with their own real physical violence to their “attacker”.

    • Heike says

      Yes, this. The only violent response is to a violent assault. The Right has been all too docile and the Left has few incidents to point to. Thus if you redefine speech as “violence”, you are then justified in committing violence in return. This is what happens when change movements gain power – they start trying to compel obedience instead of inspiring collaboration. Power and influence are not the same thing, they are opposites. The more power you use against others the less able you are to influence them. Ghandi said ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, not ‘violently demand that others be the change you want to see in the world’.

      But don’t believe me, let’s read Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor who was given a platform by the New York Times to defend the idea of speech as violence.
      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html

      Here’s a whole page of op-eds claiming that speech that offends campus activists is actually violence, and we’ve seen activists use actual violence to stop it — and to defend this as self-defense—when administrators fail to do so.

      http://www.dailycal.org/2017/02/07/violence-self-defense/

      • Nate D. says

        @ George & Heike

        If memory serves me correctly, Megan Murphy (the popular leftist feminist currently suing Twitter) accidentally tipped her hand in a recent interview on Quillette’s podcast. It made me chuckle out loud when she said it. In response to threats she’d received online, she had to clarify that she’d been threatened with “actual violence”. Ha! “Actual violence!” As opposed the other violence she constantly claims to receive at the hand of the patriarchy. You know, the “not-actual violence” kind.

        Megan proved, in that moment, that diluting language is helpful, until it’s not helpful anymore. Like the shepherd boy that cried “wolf” she eventually became the victim of her own linguistic devices.

        The silver lining is that, the more the left (and mainstream media) stands upon the hilltop screaming, “racism!” “patriarchy!” “homophobia!” “rape!” the less the general populace will cast any glances their way. Eventually the villagers will say, “Ignore them. They’re just trying to get a rise out of us.”

        • Sydney says

          @Nate D.

          Do you know for a fact that Meghan Murphy is an intersectional, third-wave feminist who buys into the left’s ever-expanding definition of violence? There may or may not have been any ‘tip-off’.

          I came from second-wave feminism where most feminists (not all) had reasonable ideas and made reasonable claims over reasonable issues.

          There isn’t one feminism, or one feminist idea.

          • Nate D. says

            @ Sydney

            You’re right. Feminism is nuanced, as are its adherent. Murphy doesn’t (that I’ve read or heard) equate ideas or language with violence. She couches these in phrases like “inciting violence” or “has violence behind it.” I do believe, the fact that she had to clarify “actual violence” shows she is aware that the left (her cohorts) have watered the word “violence” down to the point that it can now mean, “made me uncomfortable,” or, (determined through prophecy or ESP) “he was probably going to hit me.” Murphy is very guilty of ESP. When men get irritated with her message, she is omnisciently aware that it’s simply because they want to “put her in her place,” – not because they passionately disagree with her. Scanning her blog (which I did when she was in the headlines), I noticed that she writes as if disagreeing with her makes you a de facto misogynist.

            On her site, the first sentence of a blog post referencing Kavanaugh? “Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of What the Everloving Fuck is Wrong With Men?”

      • George G says

        @ Heike

        thanks for your thoughts and the links. Those are really depressing reads, the NYT one in particular. The science that Lisa Feldman Barrett refers to is :
        a study done on rats,
        a study done on baboons
        and a study on teenage girls taken 4 times over 18 months who lived in “harsh” ( harsh isn’t defined in the abstract) families. Hardly what I’d call settled science. But there it is in black and white, speech is violence as the conclusion. Or rather that was the authors predetermined conclusion and the piece around it is just puff to justify getting there.

        I am honestly a bit speechless, which is probably for the best as if I spoke I may be harming myself or others.

    • Lightning Rose says

      So if I don’t agree with some “thought experiment’s” premise, I’m committing “violence” against it’s author? Perhaps those who think so should log off the internet and go outside once in awhile.

      Another suggestion: Go pound sand.

    • Rose Clark says

      I absolutuely agree regarding the repercussions of expanding the term “violence”.

    • The Ulcer says

      @George G – Agreed. Those who manipulate language in this way have an agenda that they believe has a stronger moral imperative than semantic crimes. You can only preach to the already converted. Well written and clearly argued piece, though. It is logically watertight.

    • Andy Espersen says

      Yes, we do “have the responsibility to be good stewards of the language we speak” – but isn’t Spencer Case just simply describing the way languages normally develop and change? “Using impactful words to manipulate an audience” is very normal – and effective. I see nothing wrong with it. And in most cases there is no reason to suspect evil intentions.

  4. jimhaz says

    I cannot meet your exacting standards, my brain just does not work like that. Nor can the bulk of people I work with (80% migrant), or know. I’m not going to spend twice as long to get my bad wording and grammar right – because we all quickly move on to the next thing that meets our fancy.

    I would say the level of competition for peoples attention is now too great for any Guardians of Proper Language Use to have much of an impact. One would first have to stop practically all media from abusing language so extensively for the purposes of emotionalising – but as it provides a competitive advantage that is not going to happen.

    Due to technology, attention spans are not what they used to be, which also has an impact on language standards.

    There is also the fact that each new generation has the right to alter the language as they see fit – the young for instance are always inventing new words or meanings for existing words. People just like to be inventive. I am completely fine with the word literally as it is used nowadays.

    For higher education institutions, authorities and politicians on both sides on the other hand, I fully agree that fighting declines in usage standards should be fought tooth and nail.

    Protecting the core would appear to be difficult enough.

    • RuthHenriquez says

      I disagree. There is already pushback against concept inflation and other “pc language” usage. You can see it in action by reading the comments section following online articles whose authors (ab)use language in that way.

      I personally push back forcefully when someone (usually someone much younger than me) calls me out for using words I’ve been using all my life, but which are now set aside as forbidden by the p.c. crowd — words like “tribalism” and “other.”

      I also call out those who say that having your butt grabbed makes you a victim of sexual violence just as much as someone who has been raped. I’ve been through both and there is no comparison. The concept of violence has been watered down to the point of being meaningless.

      I refuse to have a bunch of whippersnappers tell me how to talk. I am Latina, mixed race, and have always been an ardent civil rights supporter. But I will not be schooled in English by those who have become self-designated police(wo)men to the rest of us.

      Language is indeed altered by successive generations, but only if the majority of users fall into the new patterns being generated. PC language is actually used by a minority right now, and the rest of us are getting sick and tired of it.

      Just giving up any commitment to defending clear usage seems rather apathetic to me (“my brain just does not work like that”). Well, get it working then. Language is power, and allowing your language to be distorted is allowing yourself to be disempowered. This is not just some battle for Ivy League intelligentsia elitists. This affects all of us, man.

      • timothy235 says

        Good points. The intention matters. The pc police are using language deceptively.

  5. Great article. One question though:

    What is preventing your assertion that “[n]ot every revision to language that expands a word’s reference amounts to concept inflation” from being used as justification by anybody wishing to argue against concept inflation?

    For example, one could attempt to argue that their expansive definition of ‘violence’ is correct because epistemic violence is violence since “…the original word was artificially gerrymandered to begin with, the revision is principled and not manipulative”.

    Maybe not the best example, but I think it illustrates what I’m trying to get at.

    • Stephanie says

      Good point, Les. A limiting principal would be useful here. It’d be great if we could quantify how wide a definition is, and set a threshold at which point a word is being used too broadly to be useful.

      In the absence of such a tool, we could just beat the shit out of anyone calling words violence, and then ask them which form of violence they prefer to endure.

  6. Heike says

    The full Humpty Dumpty quote is perhaps more enlightening here:

    “There’s glory for you!”
    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you’!”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more or less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be Master – that’s all.”
    — Alice in Wonderland

    Humpty Dumpty seeks to mold reality so that it is whatever he says it is. The Left is doing the same. They will oppress us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

    “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.”
    — Winston Smith, Nineteen Eighty-Four

    • jakesbrain says

      They don’t even need the approval of their own conscience. If it means being able to hurt or disadvantage someone who disagrees with them, that’s all the reason they need — questions of conscience don’t even enter into it at that point. The Left’s entire motivation is Because F*ck You, That’s Why.

  7. Daniel says

    So “gaslighting” is limited to a situation where:
    1) The speaker is repeatedly lying
    2) The speaker has a nefarious or selfish end — that is, he/she stands to benefit at the expense of the listener; perhaps materially, perhaps in terms of psychological power.
    Correct?

    If that’s the case, the question is: does it still count as gaslighting if the liar doesn’t acknowledge to himself/herself that he/she is lying? Does it count if the actual truth is readily apparent, or is easily accessible?

    Perhaps those count as gaslighting. Seems to me I’ve described Fake News to a T.

    • jakesbrain says

      I don’t see how it ceases to be gaslighting if the deceiver is also deceiving himself.

      • Wentworth Horton says

        We all deceive ourselves, and not a little bit. You’re deceiving yourself if you don’t know that.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Daniel

      Gaslighting means whatever you want it to mean.

      If anyone objects to the way you’ve used it, you’re being gaslighted.

    • The phenomenon Case describes might better be described as a collective histrionic personality disorder.

  8. Tony Shreck says

    I’ve seen the term “concept creep” to describe is here called “concept inflation”. Whichever usage is established, it’s an important idea that needs to be better understood by more people. Another is context collapse.

  9. Dominic Allaway says

    EXCELLENT article. Yet AGAIN a Quillette writer has articulated my thoughts and feelings on a topical subject in this case the abuse of language today.

    Here’s a PRIME example of concept inflation: equating people who question climate change and the gender pay gap with Holocaust denial by calling such people ‘[insert issue eg gender pay gap] deniers’.

    Wow. The author is a bloody MIND READER!

    More please!

    • This is nonsense to say somebody who argues climate change is not real or there is no gender pay gap are climate change or pay gap deniers is simple plain speech. It is a simple straightfotward statement of fact. The issue with these statements is that there is an impligation that the de iers position is in some way immoral and a simplification and reduction of the argument of tbe denier but ther is no concept inflation.

      The argument against the gender pay gap is that it is a difference in the mean earnings of two groups the members of which make decisions te disyributions of which are different and it is the consequences of this rather than discrimination that results in the difference.

      The argument by climate change deniers is either that climate change is not occuring and the evidence for it is simply statistical fluctuation, or that climate change is happening but not caused by mankinds actions, or that it is happening and caused by mankind but the best response is to accept and adapt.

      The problem with the denier phrase is not concept inflation but a refusal to engage or even acknowledge an opponents true argument. As it happens i am a pay gap ‘denier’ but not a climate change one because for me the evidence is extremely strong for mankind affecting the climate so the real debate is or should the appropriate response. Strangely the 3rd climate change position, to me the strongest one, seems to be the one argued the least.

      • Tony Shreck says

        “Strangely the 3rd climate change position, to me the strongest one, seems to be the one argued the least.”

        Quite so. It’s the best evidence IMO of the fundamental unreasonableness and tribalism in most discussions on the topic. Two camps have already divided up the reality they want to manage and declared their moral sides, largely to comport with preferences having zip to do with climate, so any nuance is anathema. First they can’t believe you don’t pick one of the obviously clear sides, then they dismiss what you have to say as crazy talk, which coming from outside the Overton Window, it may as well be to them.

      • Caligula says

        The use of “denier” is intended, by analogy with “holocaust denier,” to make disagreement morally unacceptable. Evidence that the holocaust happened is massive, anyone attempting to deny it is presumed to have motives beyond seeking historical accuracy.

        Of course, there are differences. Climate change is about predicting/extrapolating to the future (“if this goes on, then ..) and the future will always be more uncertain than the past. And while there is some evidence to support the existence of gender pay inequities, there’s also enough evidence that when all factors are taken into account this inequity is somewhere between “very small” and “in some cases women are favored.” The purpose in using the word “denier” is to shut down discussion by rendering disagreement morally repulsive.

        Although the “denier” accusation may not be the most common or effective way of doing so, for there is always the Kafka Trap, wherein protestations of innocence are taken to be admissions of guilt (whereas admissions of guilt are, well, admissions of guilt). Thus, any attempt to defend yourself against an accusation of racism, sexism, (etc.) can only be evidence of your racism, sexism (etc.).

        • Ellar S says

          “The use of “denier” is intended, by analogy with “holocaust denier,” to make disagreement morally unacceptable.”

          I’ve never seen any evidence for this claim. Do you have any, Caligula?

          It’s my understanding that denialism is simply the name given by psychologists to the phenomenon of people denying uncomfortable or inconvenient aspects of reality (eg, Diethelm and Mckee 2009). Climate change denial and holocaust denial are two flavours of this, but that doesn’t imply any moral equivalence.

          • ccscientist says

            It is not moral equivalence necessarily but structural equivalence. The Holocaust actually happened. Calling someone a climate change denier is to imply that that they are so delusional that they are denying “facts” but the question is not is climate changing but the future trajectory, how reliable the models are, and how big the impacts are likely to be. All of this needs to be debated.

      • Wentworth Horton says

        The word “denier” is used as an epithet and connotation, not it’s literal meaning. This strategy let’s the person using it avoid having to rationally defend their assertion, It can be grouped with racist, misogynist, homophobe, and transphobe as the defining lexicon of Left Wing discourse. It originated as a epithet back in the 80’s to describe a small group of fanatics who denied the Nazi holocaust ever happened and that is the connotation the word is meant to carry, that the denier is so vile and his claim so ridiculous that it needn’t be addressed, or, should be prosecuted. And some were.

    • Ellar S says

      Dominic Allaway wrote “equating people who question climate change and the gender pay gap with Holocaust denial by calling such people ‘[insert issue eg gender pay gap] deniers’”

      This claim gets bandied about a lot by various reality deniers. I’ve never seen any evidence that use the word “denier” is intended to imply moral equivalence with holocaust denial.

  10. Micro-aggression: Most sites that explain it say that sometimes the things called by this name are done with good intentions. How can you express both aggression and good intentions toward a person at the same time, and with the same words? Obviously the word “aggression” is used because it sounds bad, not because it’s accurate. Or the “micro-aggression” needs to be redefined so that it only encompasses aggressive behaviors.

    • ccscientist says

      I think micro-aggression is a good example of concept inflation. To take an inadvertent action (holding a door for someone) and call it an aggression is to exaggerate how serious the crime is. Is man-splaining as serious as burning a cross on a lawn?

  11. Bubblecar says

    This article is fair enough, and we can all benefit by avoiding overly emotive and inaccurate terminology. I must admit in a recent comment I referred to “the misogynist lobby” when “the anti-feminist lobby” would have been more fair and more accurate, and for that I apologise.

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @Bubblecar

      Classy. But we have to cut ourselves and each other some slack because we are immersed in the language of the combatants and it’s hard not to start using it ourselves. Are we using the word as it was used yesterday, or are we woke enough to be up to date, or are we so Deplorable as to suppose that words and phrases should retain their dictionary meanings? It is sometimes not obvious.

  12. I worry that some of the authors of Quilette are “crying wolf” by using the term “Marxist” and “post-modernist” a little bit too frequently and broadly. I think across left, right and centre (which is where I place Quillette) we can benefit from being mindful of overuse of words.

    • Bubblecar says

      They do tend to overuse those concepts, but that’s not surprising given that Quillette is clearly aligned with the right. They do publish a mixture of right-wing and centrist essays with a little bit of mild lefty seasoning, but so do many other right-leaning outlets.

      This quote from Wikipedia’s entry on Quillette sums it up for me:

      In a piece for Slate, Daniel Engber suggested that while some of its output was “excellent and interesting”, the average Quillette story “is dogmatic, repetitious, and a bore”, arguing that there was an irony in that many articles it published were critical of the alleged victim mentality among advocates of political correctness and identity politics, whilst their authors themselves saw themselves as victims of a politically correct orthodoxy, framing ‘even modest harms inflicted via groupthink—e.g., dropped theater projects, flagging book sales, condemnatory tweets—as “serious adversity”‘.

      • So your justification for saying Quillette is right is a Wikipedia quote from a piece for Slate? Ironically, Engbers description could apply to any left wing site….dogmatic, repetitious, and boring party-line attacks on Trump and declaring anyone to the right of AOC as a racist xenophobe.

        I’m not denying that Quillette is right of Slate. It’s right of many “main stream” (aka, dogmatic leftist) boards…but still! Center right is now far right. Blue Dog Dems are extinct because they are now lumped in with the skinhead Nazis. Orwell was only a couple decades off in his prediction.

      • ” Quillette is clearly aligned with the right. ”

        Yes, Wolf! Wolf! .. I mean Right!

        Seriously, reread the article and then just stop it.

        • Bubblecar says

          “Seriously, reread the article and then just stop it.”

          The article made some good points, but they don’t relate to the general political alignment of Quillette, which strangely enough seems to be pretty obvious to everyone except some of the commenters here.

          Describing Quillette as “right-leaning” should hardly be controversial. A high percentage of their articles are either:

          1) Left-critical from a Right perspective
          2) Left-critical from a Centrist perspective
          3) Left-critical from a Left perspective

          There is very little published in here that could be described as solid criticism of the Right.

          I speak as someone who is often left-critical myself, from a generally centre-left perspective (although I’m happy to have my atheist secularism described as “militant” and my transhumanist leanings described as “radical”, but both those positions sometimes clash with left orthodoxy – and of course nearly always clash with right orthodoxy).

          As for the comment posters, you’d have to be naive indeed to fail to recognise that they are mostly right-wing.

          • Stephanie says

            Bubblecar, you can collapse those three categories into one: reformed leftists in various stages of political maturation sounding the alarm on the danger of their former beliefs.

          • Bubblecar says

            You may be a “reformed leftist” Stephanie, but I very much doubt that applies to most of the rightists here.

            I’ve always been more-or-less centre-left and expect to remain so, since my views are based on careful reasoning, wide knowledge and sound ethics.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

        @Bubblecar

        “the alleged victim mentality”

        The unspoken premise here seems to be that whities and righties are forbidden to claim Victimhood under any circumstances and that if they have made any suggestion that some Victims have wept more tears that they perhaps should have, it follows that no whitey has ever, or could ever be treated badly and can never have anything to complain of. Thus if 100% of the coal miners in Appalachia who are dying the slow death of black lung disease are white males, this is no cause for sympathy because those same white males may have raised their eyebrows when told that they should weep for the plight of the academic feminists.

        • Stephanie says

          Ray, that’s a very important point. The use of concept inflation to amplify the gravity (and thus consequences) of defying leftist ideology, while simultaneously denying the possibility that anyone white has any claim to victimhood builds the foundation for justifying actual persecution of white people. It’s already present in discriminatory enrolment and hiring practices, but in light of it being increasingly socially acceptable to express hate for white people, it can easily move towards violence.

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @Stephanie

            Quite so. The ground is already being prepared. If we see someone laying forms on the ground, do we not anticipate that concrete will be poured shortly? Since the test is Equity, and since Equity is at the very least complete equality of outcomes (and may be anything besides that as desired), and since equality of outcome will never happen without absolute repression of whites, Asians and Jews, well …. what is necessary is necessary.

      • Defenstrator says

        I don’t think most people at Quillette are aligned with the “right”. I think most of them are liberal, in the original sense of the word, and quite centrist. For most of my life I have identified with the Liberal party here in Canada, and I were an American would have voted Democrat. It’s just in the last decade that the left wing has become detached with reality and very authoritarian. That is something I want nothing to do with no matter who promotes it.

        • jimhaz says

          The Dems have become like Australia’s far left minority party – The Greens, whom are so far left they are non-electable as a package.

          The Dems are missing strong male leadership as mentors, because it is “womens time” and thus we have young politically naive kids like Cortez shooting themselves in the foot all the time.

        • I think quite a few are from the left, even the extreme left, but had that Saul/Paul moment and are now happy finding themselves at the other side of the spectrum (all following the psychology as decribed by Eric Hoffer). Yesterday I read in my newspaper that even Leon de Winter, ultra right, by whom I landed here in this nice platform, due to a column he wrote about Peterson, was a Marxist in his youth. So, yes, crying WOLF is something universal, not identitarian or sectarian.

        • Alistair says

          Exactly. The classical liberals are deserting the left.

          Now, that doesn’t mean they are joining the right (some do) but for most they can simply see in the current climate that the real threat of human progress comes overwhelmingly from the censoring, violence, and cant of the “woke” communities.

          Bubblecar should wonder why all the classical liberals have deserted his team and he’s left with the screaming crazies.

          • Bubblecar says

            I’m a (modern) classic liberal myself, and most of my criticisms of the more doctrinaire section of the left come from a liberal, secularist and pro-science perspective.

            As do many of my criticisms of the right.

            But I’m certainly not unique in that respect. There are very large numbers of centre-left liberals out there who have little time for the doctrinaire left.

            But it’s clear we are outnumbered amongst the comment posters here, most of whom appear to be unambiguously right-wing.

    • peanut gallery says

      A fair criticism. I think in general, Progressive ideas are quite bad and can be described in very negative terms, but in specific (the individual) not everyone fits those terms. People that claim to be progressive don’t clutch every idea or even know about what other progressives do. (Usually because they also only get their information from few sources IMO.) Some are quite honest in their progressiveness, others are degenerate assholes that enjoy feeling aggrieved or superior.

      I think overuse of “left” and “right” makes the words meaningless. OTOH, it’s useful shorthand if people already know what you’re getting at. Having to explain everything idea by idea every time would get tedious for author and audience.

      I don’t think Wikipedia is a non-biased or accurate source of information when it comes to political topics. If I want to now the mass of a celestial object I can bet it’s probably right, but I find the Stalin entry to have some dubious omissions.

  13. I have been around long enough to witness the transformation of the meanings of several words as they were pressed into the service of an agenda, but none concerns me as much as the current slide of the word “hate” towards “not ideologically pure.”

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @Paul

      Yup. On another thread I made this partial list:

      Discrimination is the opposite of discrimination.
      Inclusion … inclusion
      Justice … justice
      Freedom … freedom
      Diversity diversity

      As you say, perhaps the worst hijacking is Hate … I spell it with a capital when I’m using the new meaning, and of course Hate is nothing very much like hate at all. And Discrimination is indeed exactly the opposite of discrimination.

  14. C Young says

    Linguistic inflation and deflation is a well known phenomenon in linguistics. For instance, any word that means now eventually starts to mean soon. In fact ‘now’ itself is thought to be already sliding out into the future with ‘right now’ on the cards as its replacement.

    Can anyone think of any examples of political strategic inflation on the right, or are they all on the left ?

    I would add ‘fuel poverty’ to the list. I haven’t heard that phrase much since it was determined that the Queen of England is in fuel poverty

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @C Young

      Socialist. It is now used as a synonym for Stalinist by many on the right. Even folks who should know better seem to have forgotten that one can be very moderately socialist while still recognizing many of the virtues of more conservative thinking.

      • ga gamba says

        What is “moderately socialist”? The workers own some but not all of the means of production? Or only some industries, for example rail transport and steel production, are owned by labour (or the state on behalf of labour)?

        Or, by socialist, do you mean the existence of institutions of the welfare state such as a national health service?

        • jimhaz says

          The problem is that there seems to be no word for limited socialism – which is what most democracies have, even the US.

          Limited socialism is the meeting place between libertarianism/unregulated capitalism and collectivism. This never includes the ownership of non-essential goods or services and should only include services where a monopoly situation is the best option for 80% of the supply (which is a lot more than capitalists presume).

          I’m a socialist in this sense, because I would nationalise the energy supply, meaning coal, and triple royalties on stuff like gold, silver etc. I see such resources as belonging to all – just like say OZ’s Great Barrier Reef.

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @jimhaz

            Yup. There is a huge amount of room for reasonable people to disagree as to the details while agreeing that absolutist answers are always wrong. I’m very glad that the local water works are not run for profit but are publicly owned. I wish there was a publicly owned but fully competing alternative to my local internet provider. I’m glad that the post office has not been privatized, but also glad that local restaurants succeed or fail as the free market decides. There are those free market fundamentalists who would sell the Great Barrier Reef to the highest bidder. They are as dangerous and as deluded as the Stalinists IMHO.

        • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

          @ga gamba

          No need to get specific, that’s for some actual elected government to decide case by case. I personally and in general favor public ownership of all natural monopolies but not much else. I’m 60/40 in favor of some version of national health too. States that have national health rarely seem to want to get rid of it and I am very glad we have it here in Canada, warts and all. Various privatizations of various industries are often disasters (rail in Britain). OTOH ownership by ‘the workers’ is generally a sham although certain cooperatives, such as my credit union, do very well. But as a former business owner, I know that I ran my business better than the government could have run it. I’m for profit, but also for minimum wage. I’m a centrist which means I accept some aspects of socialism while not deluding myself as to the potential problems. Ditto capitalism.

          • Obscure Canuck says

            My simplistic and not very well researched understanding of the definitions:
            Democratic socialism: Democratic government that provides generous support and controls all/most business (what Cuba/Venezuela were I think?). Also the adjective implies that normal socialism isn’t democratic…
            Social democracy: Capitalist system but where the government provides social security, welfare, healthcare, etc. (Scandinavia, Canada, etc. – think this is what you are describing as “limited socialism”?)

            But the definitions are gettings mixed up so much that when conservatives think “socialism” they think Venezuela, North Korea, and when liberals think “socialism” they think Scandinavia. I don’t know what politicians think the definitions are or if they’re intentionally mixing things up but Bernie Sanders says “democratic socialism” and points to Scandinavia, and then the Prime Minister of Denmark responds by trying to clarify that his country isn’t socialist.

          • ga gamba says

            @Jim and @Ray, If I stopped drinking alcohol and eating pork, and also believed Jesus is a prophet, could I claim I’m moderately Muslim? By believing that Jesus is a prophet, not smoking, and refusing all caffeinated beverages, could I claim I’m moderately Mormon? Could I claim I’m both moderately Muslim and moderately Mormon concurrently?

            Could I also claim I’m moderately vegan because I don’t eat pork but eat other meat? I comply with veganism in part, don’t I?

            By mentioning certain behaviours and practices have I accurately depicted the foundational articles of faith of each religion?

            I think a Muslim, a Mormon, and a vegan would strongly dispute my claim of moderate membership, though they would also agree that some of things I’m doing are exactly the same as they do IAW their practices.

            Is socialism minimum wage? If so, then Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, countries often incorrectly identified as socialist, fail the test. None have a minimum wage.

            Jim actually comes a bit closer. He mentioned coal and precious metals – raw materials – which are one of the several means of production – tools, factories, designs, and intermediate goods/components being many of the others. How about iron ore, lime, sand and silica, stones and rock, timber, aluminium, salt, soil, etc.? What about other natural resources, such as fish, shellfish, and seaweed? If we include those, why not land-grown crops and livestock? And what if I find some gold in my land when I’m planting flowers? Is that gold everyone else’s too? Should all land be publicly owned as well to clarify ownership of resources found in it as well and produced by it? What of the structures built on that land? Jim mentions the Great Barrier Reef, and to my knowledge it’s not used as a means of production. It’s a national park. But, I guess we could dredge up the coral and use it for calcium supplements and making alloys.

            Would intermediate goods such as mixture, composite, compound, and alloy materials, for example, steel, plastic, glass, fibreglass, bricks, cement, concrete, and fertiliser also be classified raw material and therefore belong to all?

            I accept the definition of socialism because it’s very useful. Socialism is social rather than private ownership of the means of production, which is “productive property”- for example, stores, factories, land, tools, raw materials, and other productive assets. Socialism organises economic activity through planning rather than market forces, and gears production towards needs satisfaction rather than profit accumulation.

            Let’s examine Statoil, Norway’s government-owned oil monopoly. Seems like a socialist company. Does it focus on market forces to determine the exploration for and the extraction and refining of oil and does it also accumulate profit? Viewed through the socialist lens, how are we to understand this news report? Shares of Statoil are also traded on two stock exchanges – the government owns 64%. Saudi Aramco and Kuwait Petroleum Corporation are both wholly government owned. Are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait socialist?

            I think people are conflating social and socialism. If I attend a social event, I’m not doing socialism, even when the nibbles and plonk are free. If I say Ray is a sociable person, I’m not warning you to hide your stuff.

            At least not yet 😉

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @ga gamba

            “could I claim I’m moderately Muslim”

            “Is socialism minimum wage?”

            “What about other natural resources, such as fish, shellfish, and seaweed?”

            I speak to an intelligent man:

            You make my case for me sir. Your entire perspective on this presumes that socialism — or any other ism I suppose — should be viewed as a religion. Religions are all or nothing world-stories that claim to answer every question and solve every problem perfectly. There is not one single, tiny improvement to Sharia law that could even be contemplated because Sharia is God’s law and God’s law is perfect, yes? Whereas many people hold their politics and their views on economics as religions, my thesis is that that is exactly the problem.

            You will see the problem clearly when ‘they’ do it: Agriculture is collectivized. Output crashes and millions starve. Is the problem with Marxism? No, of course not, that’s impossible, the problem is with the people not being sufficiently socialist. Start rounding up the Enemies of the People and keep killing until things improve, yes?

            You do the same thing, but you belong to the other religion. Unregulation gave us the Great Depression and deregulation gave us the crash of 2008. But you will not admit that, you will say that the Free Market is never wrong and always does exactly the right thing. Thus, either the Great Depression was good (because the Free Market is always good), or, if it was not good, then there must have been some socialists hiding in the shadows, corrupting things, yes? FDR handed out some food so that folks wouldn’t starve to death on the sidewalk, and that RUINED everything, yes? But for the socialist interference everything would have been fine, yes? We must have purity.

            Your thinking and the Commie’s thinking are essentially identical: the doctrine is perfect, and if a few people must die to perfect the system, that’s a small price to pay.

            I take the opposite view. There is no perfect narrative. All economic systems have their ups and their downs. Prudent governments do not recite dogmas, they solve problems with whatever tools will get the job done:

            “Is socialism minimum wage?”

            What does the situation require? Maybe no minimum wage is needed. Regulate if and when it seems prudent to do so, but not otherwise.

            “What about other natural resources, such as fish, shellfish, and seaweed?”

            What about them? There is no magic list. There is no doctrinal answer. Norway might decide to nationalize their oil industry or perhaps they might decide that there’s no need for the government to get involved.

            Economics and politics should not be religions. We should not serve our memes, our memes should serve us.

          • Stephanie says

            Ray, I think the point is that you’re using the term “socialist” incorrectly, when what you mean is “welfare state.” As ga gamba so eloquently pointed out, a little bit of socialism isn’t a stable state: because the economy and society are so interconnected, to make socialism work in one arena necessitates its spread to another. There is no limiting principal, and once socialisation is done it is hard to undo administratively and in the minds of the people (as you experience enjoying the socialised health care system).

            I approve of your populist desire to do best by the people, but material comfort should not be the prime consideration. Slaves are well-fed, housed, provided with health care, ect, but those comforts are a poor substitute for freedom. The more we are made to depend on the government, the more control they have over our lives.

            I don’t know much about the causes of the Great Depression, but the 2008 financial crisis was not caused by deregulation. Bill Clinton mandated that banks must give home loans to people who could not afford them, and that the government would guarantee those loans. The banks then spliced up these sub-prime assets and mixed them into exotic financial products. The spread of these derivatives were not the result of deregulation – no regulation ever existed for these products, because they were new and extremely mathematically complex (generated by a new crop of financiers with PhDs in physics). The problem wasn’t these derivatives per se, it was that a toxic asset that never should have existed to begin with was added to the mix.

            This is just one specific example where the government’s attempt to “do good” had catastrophic repercussions. Another I’m familiar with is biofuels. Concern over climate change lead to legislation mandating increasing levels of ethanol production. This lead farmers to stop making food for food and start making corn for fuel. This caused a radical increase in fuel prices that destabilized the Middle East, the repercussions of which we are still dealing with today.

            Whether it’s religion or ideology, having a consistent set of beliefs tends to happen. The alternative is reactionary and unprincipled action. If we have to pick something, let’s pick this: let everyone do what they want. That is the only approach consistent with human dignity. Trust that people will make the best choices for themselves, and we can avoid the terrible consequences of top-down inorganic mandates.

          • ga gamba says

            @Ray and @Steph

            Your entire perspective on this presumes that socialism — or any other ism I suppose — should be viewed as a religion.

            No, I don’t think that at all.

            Muslims don’t eat pork. I don’t eat pork. I’m a Muslim. True?

            My comment was that abductive reasoning – duck logic – may lead to errors. I’m neither Muslim nor Mormon. And I’m not vegan either. Yet, many of my behaviours and choices are the same as all three. But, and this is the crucial part, I don’t hold the central beliefs of all these. For example, I don’t have a belief in Allah as the one and only God and Muhammad is the final prophet. I could agree with everything else in Islam, abide its codes and practices, perform almost all its rituals, but by not having the aforementioned belief I’m not Muslim.

            Because two or more things are similar, even remarkably similar, does not make them the same. The bonobo is man’s closest relative. In fact, the bonobo is more closely related to man than it is related to the gorilla; man and bonobo share more than 99% of DNA. Are we the same? No. Is the difference so minute that it really doesn’t matter? Test it. Put the bonobo behind the steering wheel and let it drive your car in the motorway.

            The small difference between man and bonobo is profoundly important. The same is true between Islam and Mormonism. And it’s also true between socialism and capitalism.

            Socialist and capitalist systems overlap because both have state-provided services. They have fire brigades, for example. And public parks. Those are similarities. Are they the distinguishing features socialism? Socialism is the socio-economic system of public parks and fire brigades?

            Is socialism the same as capitalism? If that’s true, Marx certainly spent a lot effort and his entire adult life making an unnecessary distinction and argument, and millions of people’s unnecessary deaths were even more unnecessary than thought. What a cock up.

            In my previous comment I provided the most common definition used by socialists as well as political scientists and philosophers. You likely would have noticed that it makes no mention of services provided or minimum wage.

            My chief protest is the mischaracterisation of services as socialist when socialism is not the requirement for these services to exist. “Drat, we don’t have the fire brigade because the means of production aren’t yet owned by the proletariat.” We have regulations, fire brigade, minimum wage, and even public health services in mixed capitalist systems.

            But you will not admit that, you will say that the Free Market is never wrong and always does exactly the right thing.

            I’m confident I’ve never made that argument. Errors happen. I prefer the free enterprise system, but I have written several times that I appreciate regulation because I don’t want mercury dumped in the drinking water supply and I don’t want my next door neighbour running a disco until 5am daily. I think taxation for and regulation of the used-by-all systems are appropriate. For example, sewers, water treatment, roads, police, fire, national defence, etc. I don’t support taxation for wealth redistribution, either up or down. I know I’ve written here my opposition to all subsidies and set asides including those for businesses. The set asides, those legs up to aid the poor buying homes with secured 100% mortgages were also subsidies for bankers and derivatives investors. The government is going to guarantee the debt? Okie dokie, thanks for removing my risk.

            Unregulation gave us the Great Depression and deregulation gave us the crash of 2008.

            Regulation existed prior to the Great Depression. The stocks suffering the greatest decrease in value in the ’29 Crash were public utilities, the most regulated industry, one where even its profit. i.e. the “fair return”, was determined by the governments’ rate commission regulators. They fell 55%; railroads fell 32%.

            There should be a tendency for the stock price to revert to the book value for a public utility supplying an essential service where there is no effective competition, and the rate commission is effectively allowing a fair return to be earned. In 1929, public utility stock prices were in excess of three times their book values. . . . Sooner or later this price bubble had to break unless the regulatory authorities were to decide to allow the utilities to earn more than a fair return, or an infinite stream of greater fools existed. The decision made by the Massachusetts Public Utility Commission in October 1929 applicable to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston made clear that neither of these improbable events were going to happen. . . . as of September 1, 1929 utilities industry represented $14.8 billion of value or 18% of the value of the outstanding shares on the NYSE. Thus, they were a large sector, capable of exerting a powerful influence on the overall market. . . . The October 19, 1929 issue of the Commercial and Financial Chronicle identified the main depressing influences on the market to be the indications of a recession in steel and the refusal of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to allow Edison Electric Illuminating Company of Boston to split its stock. The explanations offered by the Department — that the stock was not worth its price and the company’s dividend would have to be reduced — made the situation worse. . . . On October 15, the Boston City Council advised the mayor to initiate legislation for public ownership of Edison, on October 16, the Department announced it would investigate the level of rates being charged by Edison, and on October 19, it set the dates for the inquiry. On Tuesday, October 15, there was a discussion in the Times of the Massachusetts decision in the column “Topic in Wall Street.” It “excited intense interest in public utility circles yesterday and undoubtedly had effect in depressing the issues of this group. The decision is a far-reaching one and Wall Street expressed the greatest interest in what effect it will have, if any, upon commissions in other States.” . . . Massachusetts was not alone in challenging the profit levels of utilities. The Federal Trade Commission, New York City, and New York State were all challenging the status of public utility regulation. New York Governor (Franklin D. Roosevelt) appointed a committee on October 8 to investigate the regulation of public utilities in the state. The Committee stated, “this inquiry is likely to have far-reaching effects and may lead to similar action in other States.” Both the October 17 and October 19 issues of the Times carried articles regarding the New York investigative committee. Professor Bonbright, a Roosevelt appointee, described the regulatory process as a “vicious system” which ignored consumers. . . . On Black Thursday, October 24, the market panic began. The market dropped from 305.87 to 272.32 (a 34 point drop, or 9%) and closed at 299.47. The declines were led by the motor stocks and public utilities. (Source: http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-1929-stock-market-crash/)

            Prof Bierman doesn’t blame the public utilities solely; he performed a multivariate analysis and finds several causes.

            My reason to cite this is to dispute your assertion of an unregulated economy. I shall also mention the Federal Reserve was established 1913. The Federal Trade Commission was established in 1914; it was preceded by the Bureau of Corporations in 1903. Anti-trust regulations were first enacted in 1890. Go back further and you find National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864. You may argue that there was less regulation and even insufficient regulation, but you can’t assert there was no regulation.

      • It’s used in the sense that Marx originally used it, which was a stepping stone towards the end goal of Communism, as was done under Stalin. People who have tried to make it represent only those concerned with a social net for the people only have themselves to blame for trying to subvert its original meaning.

        • ga gamba says

          That definition of socialism carried on long past Marx – read present socialist and Marxist websites. They are crystal clear that productive resources – the means of production – are to be owned by either the workers or the state. Why? Chiefly because profit is immoral and dehumanising.

          I’ll give these adherents their due: they are upfront with what they believe and what they want. How is this to be accomplished? Seriously. Ask one of them how exactly the productive resources of GM and Samsung are to be handed over to the workers. Give me a corporate-takeover business-restructuring business plan.

          Presently there is another crop of socialists who seem to be schooled in the tactics of postmodernism to expand meanings and create confusion. I’m not saying they are genuine postmodernists who dislike grand narratives, rather it’s a means to an end by cloaking the intentions under the diversity, inclusivity, and equity (DIE) goals to subvert hierarchy and power, i.e. the heteronormative capitalist patriarchy. “Do you like the snow ploughed from city streets? That’s socialism!” “The fire brigade is nifty, yeah? That’s state ownership. You trust it to extinguish fires, don’t you? Imagine if the entire society was that.” “Dissatisfied by income inequality experienced by the people of the people of? Have you checked out the Democratic Socialists plans for equitable redistribution?”

          Now, I should recognise that this tactic is not entirely new. Upton Sinclair, writing to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas in 1951: “The American People will take Socialism, but they won’t take the label. I certainly proved it in the case of EPIC [End Poverty in California]. Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000. I think we simply have to recognize the fact that our enemies have succeeded in spreading the Big Lie. There is no use attacking it by a front attack, it is much better to out-flank them.”

          I think a person who is in favour of the welfare state, and only that, should be able to differentiate it from socialism. Years ago when the majority was illiterate and books were rare and precious things, it’s understandable how the meaning of words went loosey goosey. But we’re not in the 18th century any longer. Right at our fingertips we’re able to get accurate if not precise meanings in a flash. Yet, having this amazing tool at our disposal, somehow there’s been an embrace of “It means whatever the hell I say it means.” By accepting such imprecision it only abets those who are running flanking manoeuvres.

          This inability or refusal to use this marvel of our age boggles my mind.

          • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

            @ga gamba

            “(DIE) ”

            I wonder. True, someone is buggering us, but is it the commies? I read an article in an outright commie blog (I’ll try to find it), that said that DIE and SJ and PC are in fact bourgeois feel-good hobbies. Rather comparable to some capitalist pig making a great show of handing back to his exploited workers some pittance and expecting great adulation for it. Real commies, they said, remain interested in the liberation of working people, not narcissistic trannies and self pitying feminists and various other freaks and perverts all of whom are so privileged that they have nothing better to do than try to stroke their own self-importance.

            Speaking for myself, I can say that my socialist inclinations do not draw me any closer to the SJ people, who I consider to be moral enemies. My socialism and their socialism have nothing in common.

        • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

          @ga gamba @Stephanie

          Finally it gets productive. What I want from a site like this is to get past the ‘opening shots’ stage and find where the meat is. I don’t want to just state an opinion, I want to debate an opinion so as to test its merits.

          “you mean is “welfare state.”

          Labels are so misused nowadays that I don’t want to worry about them too much. I mean the sort of political system that would have been seen in virtually any Western democracy between WWII and today. Some more ‘socialist’, some more ‘free-enterprise’ but always a balance between them. Always the understanding that one could go too far in either direction. No absolutist doctrines.

          “to make socialism work in one arena necessitates its spread to another.”

          This is factually inaccurate. We have public waterworks here, but the restaurant industry is regulated only to the extend that the government inspects for safety. The business that I owned was *entirely* unregulated. Really, I never heard a single word from a single bureaucrat. So long as I paid my taxes how I ran my business was 100% up to me.

          There is no limiting principal, and once socialisation is done it is hard to undo

          That can be entirely true. In my view every doctrine has it’s weakness.

          “The more we are made to depend on the government, the more control they have over our lives.”

          All too true. Yet I do not want the waterworks privatized notwithstanding. I accept the risk.

          “no regulation ever existed for these products, because they were new and extremely mathematically complex”

          Fine. Call it a failure to regulate then. Sheesh, even Greenspan himself had misgivings. I don’t want to split hairs over this. Let’s face it, the regulators and their friends at Goldman let us down, didn’t they? Be honest.

          “This lead farmers to stop making food for food and start making corn for fuel.”

          One can always spin a cautionary tale. One could pick from a hundred similar. The ‘other side’ has their cautionary tales too, and they are just as compelling. Yes, the government screws up all the time. So do I, but I muddle thru.

          “Whether it’s religion or ideology, having a consistent set of beliefs tends to happen. The alternative is reactionary and unprincipled action.”

          Yes. Even pragmatism can be unpragmatic. Even the doctrine of having no doctrine can fail. Without wisdom, yeah, as you say, we can end up blowing in the breeze of today’s opinion. The centrist should always be deeply aware of the likely consequences of any policy. Nope, the desire is to sail a steady course and to make small but well considered corrections. Like balancing a broomstick on the end of one’s finger. But I suppose in some crisis an instinctive or ideological response could be required.

          “let everyone do what they want”

          But only the most fanatical anarchist really believes that. It sounds nice, but really?

          “Trust that people will make the best choices for themselves”

          Yes. And the people here have decided that the waterworks will be a cooperative owned by everyone via the local municipality. People can chose to cooperate, and the agency of their cooperation can be an elected government.

          “I’m confident I’ve never made that argument.”

          Sorry. The reducto is only aimed at you insofar as you hold the flag for the other team at the moment. But there are those who really do seem to believe that the Free Market *cannot* make a mistake by definition. I resist only that sort of fundamentalism.

          “I think taxation for and regulation of the used-by-all systems are appropriate.”

          That entire paragraph is perfectly reasonable.

          “Regulation existed prior to the Great Depression.”

          Of course. I exaggerated for effect. But more regulation was needed, as we saw in both ’29 and ’08. Or, perhaps smarter regulation. Bad regulation can be worse than no regulation, no question.

          “There should be a tendency for the stock price to revert to the book value for a public utility supplying an essential service”

          I prefer outright public ownership, so that stock price is null. It is a myth that public ownership must be bloated and wasteful. Yes, it will always *tend* to become bloated and wasteful, but that need not be unresisted.

  15. David K says

    Good analysis, and I couldn’t agree more. While most of the examples raised in the article tend to come from the same political ideology and thus won’t find argument with most readers here, there are more you could have given.

    For example, use of the word “anti-semitism” to mean any sort of statement relating to Israel or its government that is not positive. This is concept inflation that uses associations with horrible atrocities that the Jews have suffered for shallow political purposes.

    Use of the word “murder” when referring to fetuses in the womb is clear concept inflation meant to convey emotion just like the example of “violence” given in the article.

    Use of the phrase “white genocide” to refer to people of different races having children together.

    Use of the word “communist” or “Marxist” to refer to anyone of left political leaning, even if they are not communist or Marxist. This is meant to use associations with violent dictatorships to evoke emotion, not meaning.

    I think every group or ideology is guilty of these tricks to some extent, and I agree that it lowers the level of discourse and impedes rational argument.

    • Obscure Canuck says

      Thanks for this comment. I was wondering about examples from the other side as well.

      I have been puzzled by the habit of people such as Ben Shapiro to equate any form of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as well, but I’m not sure what to think because nearly any article on the topic would be so biased. I guess their argument is that if Israel were to be dissolved then there would inevitably be intense religious persecution. But that wouldn’t make all criticism of Israel’s politics anti-Semitic.

      For abortion, if a fetus is an innocent human life why wouldn’t the term “murder” apply? My understanding is that generally when a pregnant woman is murdered, the murderer is charged with two murders. This situation also tempts me to apply “Genuine concept inflation isn’t always wrong”, but I’m not sure whether or not I agree with the author there yet. Are we allowed to apply “murder” if we can use rational argument to argue that the definition fits?

      I’ve never heard of “white genocide” being used for that purpose or any other, and I’m glad of it because that seems like an example of belief in white superiority.

      I mostly see “communist” and “Marxist” applied to people supporting identity politics/intersectionality and constantly talking about the oppression of marginalized groups in our society. I don’t know enough about Marxist/communist philosophy to know if describing these people as such would be inaccurate, but I do know there are a number of people on the left in academia who genuinely believe in communism and call themselves communists/anarcho-communists.

      • David K says

        Apparently in the U.S. laws for murder of pregnant women vary by state. I realized after writing this that the author was probably hinting at abortion with his analogy of broadening the definition of murder to peasants. Of course this gets into the whole pro-life vs. pro-choice debate but yes pro-life people will want the term to be inflated.

        You’re right that there are plenty of actual communists today, and its a growing movement, but as you said those terms are usually used to talk about people who are not even close to that. The “identity politics” people are usually not even economic leftists – in the U.S. they mostly supported Hillary over Bernie in the 2016 election. Furthermore there are relatively few Marxists, which refers to a very specific ideology involving a revolution and “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Anarchists are not Marxists, and neither are Democratic Socialists.

        Yes, “White genocide” is a fundamental belief of white supremacists. The “anti-semitism” accusations in my opinion are just due to tribalism and are no different than other accusations of racism. Just like when you’re watching sports, every little thing the other team does is a foul and your team can do no wrong.

    • Use of the word murder when referring to fetuses in the womb is not concept inflation at all. It is refusing redefining what a life is. Just like someone who is on an iron lung or pacemaker is unable to live unassisted, so is a fetus unable to live without the mother’s involuntary feeding and sharing of blood, etc. with them as they grow. They are still a living being. Destroying a fetus is still murder. Does that mean abortion should be outlawed? No. But it should be done with the proper gravity and weight of what your decision is involving.

      • David K says

        Abortion not being a crime indicates that it is not in fact considered murder – since murder is a crime – and I would also argue that concept inflation as defined here refers to people’s common understanding and usage of a given word, which does not apply to fetuses except among pro-life advocates. As I said in my second comment above, pro-life people believe the concept should be inflated, and that’s a different debate. In addition to “murder”, people will also refer to embryos/fetuses as “babies”, which is also concept inflation as a baby is commonly defined and used to mean newly-born human. It’s clearly meant to inflate the emotional reaction to abortion by conjuring an image of an actual baby.

    • Stephanie says

      David, not all criticism of Israel is based in Jew hatred, but criticism that suggests Israel has no right to exist or exaggerates its human rights record can only be based in Jew hatred. How can it not be, when a dozen other countries took much more territory and ethnically cleansed many more people at the same time? Anyone critical of Israel’s existence but not that of, say, Pakistan, which used to be a multicultural part of India, but is now 97% Muslim, is singling out Jews unfairly for criticism. If you don’t want to be accused of Jew hatred, your criticism should be proportional to some objective metric, such as area of territory acquired or number of people displaced. Failure to be logically consistent this way necessitates an illogical motivation, of which ignorance or Jew hatred are the most obvious.

      As for abortion, murder is defined as “the unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice.” Fetuses are obviously human, so the only aspect of the definition that currently doesn’t apply is that killing young humans is legal. Legality, however, is a poor basis for morality, and inhumane institutions have been legal. The only way to justify your position that abortion = murder is concept inflation is to change the definition of murder such that it depends on the age of the human being killed, or its level of dependence. Both these definition changes would have horrible repercussions for human rights.

  16. david of Kirkland says

    All language changes, but when terms like assault and harassment get too broad, they do cheapen the actual victims and bad perpetrators of such things. It’s like being compared to Hitler, or claiming that the ACA (which requires the purchase of private insurance for private healthcare) is socialism.
    Soon the terms lose their impact, and the mental models go soft.
    Language mostly tries to hold meaning, not change, when used intellectually. Even when I was a child, did “bad” mean something good or something bad? We conflate meanings and then wonder why our culture declines, in a world where precision is increasing in technology and science, human minds are losing focus.

    • Grumpy Bear says

      >>>they do cheapen the actual victims and bad perpetrators of such things

      True but those who are inflating the word do not care. By continually redefining “wolf”, they lower the bar of evil and replenish their pool of enemies, even as some come over to their side. As the pool of enemies grows, they are more and more justified in demanding harsher rules and policies to overcome the “growing problem of wolves in our society”.

      In my case: 20 years ago I would have been judged by most as having progressive/enlightened views about race. My views have not changed, but using today’s (Progressive) definition, I would be clearly considered a white supremacist.

    • ga gamba says

      Even when I was a child, did “bad” mean something good or something bad?

      In the 1988 Seoul Olympics US network NBC Sports found itself in a lot of hot water with the host nation. There were the usual colour pieces that the Koreans found unflattering, and the coverage of Korean boxer Byun Jung-il’s centre ring sit-down protest for an hour that included a clock timing it upset many, but it was the t-shirts worn by NBC’s technical crew that went too far. Along with the Olympic rings, Seoul ’88, and the NBC logo printed on them was “We’re Bad”. The Korean press reported it as NBC, and by extrapolation the USA, saying the Koreans and their Olympics were bad.

      Michael Jackson’s Bad album had been released a year before the games, was the number one album for 6 weeks, was in the top 5 for 33 weeks, and was the first album to spawn five No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 including the single “Bad”. The centerpiece of the album was the “Bad” music video, an 18-minute short film by legendary director Martin Scorsese. 1988 was a Bad year. Jackson’s album was released by Columbia Records, then a division of network broadcaster CBS – Sony bought the record company at the end of ’87, and the relationship between Sony and CBS remained strong.

      Broadcasting the world’s premier sporting event of ’88, NBC’s use of “We’re Bad” was a taunt at its rival CBS and not Korea, yet the Koreans concocted a Rorschach test of the t-shirt and saw something to be offended about.

  17. El Uro says

    When I think about professors of political science only words that come to my mind are “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
    They are aggressive idiots with one ganglion between their ears.

  18. Here’s one that belongs on the list: “survivor” for victim of a crime or other incident in which one’s life was not in danger.

    • Asenath Waite says

      @Hmmm

      Oh, I’m glad you mentioned “survivor”. That really bugs me as well. In order to be said to have survived an experience, there must be a significant chance that the experience could have killed you.

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @Hmmm

      Perfect. The metooists talk about ‘surviving’ a creepy come-on from Harvey W. As far as I know Harvey never killed anyone.

  19. Caligula says

    “McKinnon presents the following as a case of such ‘subtle’ gaslighting. A trans woman, Victoria, thinks that James is deliberately failing to use her preferred pronouns”

    Well, at least there’s nothing ‘subtle’ about insisting that the adult biological male standing in front of you really is actually a woman, just so long as he/she says so.

    • Shatterface says

      If you want an example of gaslighting then it’s hard to beat a male bodied athlete insisting women don’t practice hard enough as ‘she’ cheats her way to medals in women’s sport.

  20. Kristina says

    “If some way of using a word seems fishy, then take your own reaction seriously and make your concern known.”

    I have a concern with the article’s use of “gerrymandered.” The article states, “Because the original word was artificially gerrymandered to begin with, the revision is principled and not manipulative.”

    The origin of gerrymander is highly specific: an 1812 political cartoon about a legislative district shaped like a salamander and determined by Massachusetts governor Gerry. Its use has previously been highly specific to the field of legislative districting when districts are drawn to deliberately dilute the voting power of certain populations, but this article now enlarges its meaning to include any kind of artificial restriction.

    The author’s insertion of “artificially” suggests that gerrymandering is any restriction, whether artificial or natural. But as the term began, and as it is used in the election law context, gerrymandering is always deliberate.

    Like gaslighting, gerrymandering has become an inflated term. This is especially important because legislative redistricting is regularly reviewed by courts and the word is a term of art in election law.

  21. I am a straight white male. I am really sick and tired of all this far left bs. It seems I (along with other straight white males) are the cause of all the world’s problems. The sjw’s can’t stand anything about me, except taking the taxes I pay – I’m thinking primarily of the universities that are ground zero for this nonsense.

    If they really can’t stand me then they should forgo the taxes I pay and rely on money from their supporters. Capitalism is a great way to get rid of valueless and harmful products.

    Sometimes I feel I went to sleep in 2007 and have woken up in bizzaro world making me wonder where are the adults? It’s becoming like Lord of the Flies.

  22. Andrew says

    The story of The Man who Called Good Intentions: There once was a Man who watched over his village. Every time a wolf would come to eat the village’s livestock, the man would cry that it was well-intentioned and they shouldn’t condemn or kill the wolf. Over time the wolf got more bold, but the village listened to the Man, believing “it’s just a category error by the wolf, and his wolfness is good in theory but bad in practice”. Eventually the wolf started eating children, but by then the villagers were so weak from a lack of food that they couldn’t stop it. The Man was eventually killed for food by the villagers, whispering “at least you have good intentions” as they pulled out his intestines. The End.

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @Andrew

      Thanks. A good laugh now and then makes it all go away for a few seconds.

    • ga gamba says

      Thanks for posting. It’s an excellent background and analysis. Well worth the read.

    • George G says

      @ chimchimney
      thanks for the link and….. kick your knees up, shtep in time

  23. Farris says

    Excellent well thought out and annotated article. I did have two slight reservations.
    1. The author seems to insinuate that those misappropriating words do so innocently and without malice. I disagree. I believe this linguistic subterfuge is done to counter inconvenient facts. Much like Humpty Dumpty the facts or actualities do not matter, if the speaker choses the meaning of the word.
    2. The author overlooks the most frequently abuse an over broad word currently bandied about; Racism and or racist.

    No doubt someone will insist that it is a racism and therefore I am a racist to suggest that these terms be included in the list of oft abused words.

  24. Wordophile says

    This is a great article and should be required reading for academics of all stripes and for anybody under the age of 40.

    The miss use of important words has become so commonplace among younger sets that we barely notice.

    The most common tactic is to use theword that has the most extreme emotional reaction and use it to amplify the scope or severity of what is actually happening.

    Kids who are told they didnt get the the final grade they expected or who lost their iphone are “devastated.” Adults who expect full throated agreement on some touchy issue and indtead get pushback ir partial support become “outraged.” Ad nauseum.

    Notes to those people: if losing that grade or phone devastates you what word do you use to describe watching someone lower your siblings casket into the ground? Super-devastated? And those adults what happens when the electrician plants a camera in your bedroom ceiling fan, and later shares the images? Ultra-outraged?

    Use the appropriate word /say what you really mean, people. Usage matters.

      • George G says

        @ Literally

        bravo.

        great name and I’ll see your million billion and raise you a billion trillion

  25. Asenath Waite says

    Good article. There seems to be a general assault on language by the identitarians such that the definitions of many words are becoming eroded to the point of uselessness. It’s becoming more and more difficult to have discussions in which one can be confident that both parties even mean the same things when they use the same words. I guess the abandonment of concrete and objective meaning in language is desirable from a post-modernist perspective.

  26. Agree that it’s a good piece, and also that all partisans engage in this, often unwittingly. It’s much easier to recognize the splinter in another’s eye.

    The dynamic is sometimes a battle between euphemism and concept inflation, e.g.:

    “Terminate a pregnancy” vs “Murder a baby”
    “Affirmative action” vs “Reverse racism”
    “Family values” vs “War on women”

    Everyone’s a loser in such battles, especially so the more the terms enter the mainstream lexicon and start to obscure the shades of gray that characterize real life.

    It’s true that these rhetorical strategies have always been with us and always will be. But they need to be pushed against — with each side having the courage and confidence to police itself and not just call out the other side. And ostensibly neutral parties (including the MSM, social media platforms, educators) dedicating themselves to remaining open and impartial and to avoiding the temptations of concept inflation and euphemism.

    Not easy in the current moment of division and antagonism. But the alternative to cooler heads prevailing is not pretty.

  27. markbul says

    In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt discussed totalitarian control of language as the control of reality. For an example, she said that when Stalin’s regime said that Moscow had the only Underground system, it meant that all other underground train systems should be destroyed. Hitler and the National Socialists did the exact same thing – they made their words true by controlling reality. You can;t argue Jews aren’t a dying race when they’re all being killed.

    Today’s Left, including the ‘progressive’ version, is totalitarianism without the guns.

    • You mean it’s a type of evil (partly) defined by violent coercion minus the violent coercion?

    • Every time I read the comments on this site, I’m amazed (though I guess I shouldn’t be) at the fundamental *similarity* between the commentators and the sort of “social justice warriors” they all hate. Always the partisanship and inflated rhetoric and massifying assumptions about the “enemy”.

      (People here generally argue a bit better and are less personally abusive, which is good, but on the other hand the “SJWs” at least affect-and in many case I think on some level actually feel-a concern for when at least some people get hurt, unlike the sort of ‘man-up’ attitude applied around here to anyone except college professors who have had activists shout at them, so it’s kind of a wash.)

  28. Jezza says

    This is an outstanding article. It presents complicated concepts clearly and affords a new lens with which to view our civilization. As a Bible reader, I shall now ponder the commandment against “false testimony” in a new light. Question: can a false story be true in essence?

  29. codadmin says

    Yes, the fascist left ( a ‘literal’ term 😉 ) are experts at ‘concept inflation’ and ‘explicit hyperbole’. The true masters, however, are hormonal teenage girls with a grievance to air.

    What this says about the fascist left is open to interpretation.

    Unfortunately, the rest of us moderates, both conservative and liberal, can’t just allow these hormonal tyrants dominion over the language. We have to play the game ourselves. When they screech, we screech back using exactly the same language. The result being a neutered ‘word’ or ‘concept’ that no side controls.

    The non-left did this brilliantly with the concept of ‘fake news’. The leftists coined the phrase, and it was immediately thrown back in their face. The phrase is now meaningless because of it.

    Non-leftists must do the same for every single word and concept the fascist left wield against them.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      You live in a fantasy world. The president lies his ass off constantly – “fake news” is his name for any news that is unflattering to him, and it has absolutely nothing to do with what is real or fake. He just declared an “emergency” over a situation that meets zero criteria for an emergency. And how about the deficit? Depending which party holds power, it’s either the end of human civilization or meaningless. It’s all a language game.

      So please, don’t bother. You’ll see whatever your one-sided worldview allows you to see and nothing more.

      • codadmin says

        The only people who don’t think the debt and borders don’t matter are fascists like you.

        Outside of natural disaster, border security is the definition of a national emergency.

        If it wasn’t for fascists like you, who hate America, and use immigration against the country you hate, then a wall would not be needed.

        Liar! Russia did it…until they didn’t!!

  30. Palmer Canyon says

    For another look at the misuse of literally, go to YouTube and request Captain Literally Studio C. Enjoy!

  31. ccscientist says

    “racism” is exactly like the boy crying wolf, and with the same effect. Those using the accusation wish they were fighting the good fight of the 60s but lack real racists to attack, so they have inflated the term and use it too much. When merely voting for Trump makes you “racist” or merely being white makes you “racist” the term has been inflated.

    On college campus’ they have inflated “rape” by calling it “sexual assault” and including in their survey of students things like being pinched on the butt or being leered at or catcalled. This inflation on the one hand devalues actual rape and on the other destroys young men whose crime was not calling the girl the next day and having that called assault.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Rape and sexual assault are not always synonymous. And how is calling “rape” by a far less forceful and powerful name inflating it? NOTHING holds more emotional pull than the word rape, which is why we have a broader term for anything that involves sexually harassing or assaulting somebody without the actual act of rape occurring.

      You’re just making shit up.

      • ccscientist says

        Plaza: Perhaps you are not familiar with US colleges. The claim is constantly made that 1/4 of female students will be sexually assaulted, with it implied that this means rape but it actually means “unpleasant date, pinched on butt, whistled at, asked out by an ugly guy” PLUS rape in order to get those statistics. This is how feminists justify suspending legal protections for male students: it is an emergency! Crisis!

  32. Sydney says

    Words matter. And of course it’s not only the far left misusing and abusing language. The right has done it for decades. Take pregnancy termination, for example.

    People who oppose a woman’s right to control her own body successfully co-opted the term “pro-life,” even though those same “pro-lifers” murdered doctors and nurses in cold blood. A “pro-life” murderer: an interesting twist of language usage. And it’s often pointed out that these same types are only interested in the “life” when it’s IN a woman’s body, and not at all once it’s born. That’s less “pro-life” and more pro-control over women.

    The “pro-lifers” call people who support reproductive rights “pro-abortion,” which of course is absurd. Nobody is “pro-abortion.” These supporters are “pro-choice,” meaning that they believe that a woman has a right to choose what she does with her body, and with her pregnancy.

    Even the term “abortion” is loaded against women. The more correct and factual term is “pregnancy termination,” because at least one in five pregnancies terminates itself. “Abortion” suggests that a pregnancy will always succeed in the birth of a live infant, which is untrue.

    [This is all only an issue in the U.S., since all of the the most advanced Western nations legalized pregnancy termination, and in so doing shifted the entire issue out of the hyper-emotional public sphere and back into the control of women and their health servers.]

    Today the intersectional left is most often twisting language like pretzels, but the right has also abused language for decades.

    • ga gamba says

      These supporters are “pro-choice,” meaning that they believe that a woman has a right to choose what she does with her body, and with her pregnancy.

      Yes, but very often the same women who are SWERFs object to women choosing to be sex workers and appear in heterosexual adult films – a euphemism for pornography. Women exercising their individual right to choice ‘harm’ the female collective, it is asserted. There are many non-SWERF feminists who oppose women appearing in beauty pageants, modeling, etc. They frequently object to and file complaints against adverts featuring women, usually thin and attractive ones, in certain clothes and poses though those women chose to appear in the adverts. Yet, put a land whale in a bikini advert and it’s a bloody festival of cheers and joy.

      Are the choice rights of females who choose to refuse vaccinations for fear of their reproductive health and as a consequence told they may not hold certain jobs or face other consequences being infringed? What about the case of countries where vaccinations are mandatory, which is the situation of many states in the EU?

    • tarstarkas says

      @Sydney, You just committed the sin the article went at great lengths to describe. ‘Pregnancy termination’ being a good example. As for the murderers of abortion service providers, which are very few in number, most if not all have been prosecuted for their crimes (if they did not die on site).

      https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/29/us/30abortion-clinic-violence.html

      11 people murdered in 22 years is 11 too many, but compare that number to the number of abortions performed in the US:

      https://nrlc.org/uploads/factsheets/FS01AbortionintheUS.pdf

      and you can see there is a ‘considerable’ dissymmetry.

      BTW, I’m a very pro birth control provider person, as in pills or devices. Too many abortions being performed are simply a method of birth control subsidized by the taxpayer. That has helped Planned Parenthood outcompete smaller and more local abortion providers. Take away the subsidies, and I think you will see a strong trend towards birth control and away from abortion. Protecting the revenue stream from the taxpayers is becoming PP’s primary mission.

      There is also the uncomfortable fact that abortion in the USA is about as good an example of racial disparate impact discrimination that there is, and it’s no wonder the defenders of the recently passed NY law want to shift the discussion elsewhere. BTW, that law is about as worthless a piece of SJW virtue signalling that there is, the number of infants impacted would be microscopically small and most likely would have died anyway, such as babies born lacking vital organs or with only brainstems for brains.

    • “People who oppose a woman’s right to control her own body successfully co-opted the term “pro-life,” even though those same “pro-lifers” murdered doctors and nurses in cold blood”

      This is nonsense. First, the term “pro-life” was not “co-opted,” it was created as an alternative to “anti-abortion,” which is what the position had been called before. Having one side called “pro-choice” and the other as “anti-abortion” creates a presumption in favour of the “pro” side.

      Second, murders were not committed by “those same ‘pro-lifers’,” they were committed by a radical fringe of people who believed that it was okay to take justice into their own hands. They were also universally condemned by mainstream pro-lifers. This is so self-evident that I can’t believe you are making this argument in good faith.

  33. Bootstamp says

    I think you might find use for the phrase ‘agree denotationally but object connotationally’ (ADBOC), as explained here: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/9hR2RmpJmxT8dyPo4/when-truth-isn-t-enough

    I would also argue that when you say this is “a lot like lying”, you too are commiting the same crime (haha, can I call it a “crime”? technically, yes ;)) of letting an agenda creep into a technically correct but misleading (in suggested response) statment.

  34. Rose Clark says

    I disagree with your argument that some revisions to language are concept inflation and others are not.

    Your explanation of why it would be ok to expand the definition of the word « murder » isn’t any different from why it’s ok to expand the definition of the word « violence ». I can easily argue that in both cases the original definition of the word is unjust, that it ignores the suffering of many victims who fall outside the old definition.

    The only difference I can see is your personal opinion on what is and is not morally correct.

    Both examples remove meaning from the original definition; if « murder » is applied to all victims, the word no longer communicates the class of who was murdered. If « violence » is applied to all sorts of unpleasantness, it no longer communicates the degree of harm, or if it was physical or psychological.

    I think the only honest solution is to create new words. « Peasanticide » for the murder of a peasant, « Bullying » or « harassment » for damaging words.

  35. Stephenitisok says

    Pelosi, Schumer say Trump’s emergency declaration ‘does great violence to our constitution’. After all the violence committed on it over the years it’s a wonder it is still alive.

  36. Pingback: Links | A rusted piton

  37. Nate D. says

    @ David K
    Be careful about ceding moral authority to the government. Capital punishment is legal in many states. Still an argument can be made that the premeditated extermination of a human life can be classified as murder – EVEN IF a Supreme Court judge has made it “legal”. Many on the left have no problem calling the death sentence “murder” even though it’s legal.

    Ceding moral authority to a governing body is a dicey argument that will backfire on you. With 5 conservative judges in place, and Louisiana pushing to overturn Roe v. Wade, this will be heading back to the Supreme Court soon. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, you’ll find yourself pushing this argument with a rope. A flaccid argument, indeed.

    Furthermore, to your other argument, when a child asks what’s in your wife’s big tummy, do you say, “There is a lump of cells in there,” or “There is a fetus in there”? No. You’d say “There’s a baby in there,” because you are honest when speaking to a child. Would you correct a woman if she said, she was “heavy with child”? Like Dwight Schruit, “False! The State of New York ruled that the living mass within your swelling uterus cannot be consider a human child until the moment it exits the birth canal.”

    While I do agree that pro-lifers play the game of using emotionally charged language, I think pro-lifers are actually playing far LESS linguistic gymnastic than you did in your post.

  38. Nakatomi Plaza says

    Fine. I won’t quibble with most of this. However, why no examples of the way language is manipulated by the right? Point to any name of any Republican agenda item and I’ll show you a blatant and dangerous distortion of language. This phenomenon is universal and bipartisan.

    And here’s my quibble: Fuck you for politicizing this and providing ammunition for any self-righteous tool looking for yet another reason to demonize those they disagree with politically. The only thing more universal than lies and hyperbole might be hypocrisy, and it lives here.

  39. Orwell presciently predicted the corruption of language in the service of a totalitarian agenda, but mistakenly thought it would proceed by narrowing the meanings of words on the basis of reason.

    The real-world analogue of Newspeak, as I have opined in comments to numerous online forums, inflates (to use this author’s term) the meaning of words on the basis of emotion. Invariably the words chosen have a standard English meaning with a strong emotional content (positive or negative), which is then supposed to attach to the entire inflated meaning, or rather to all the variant meanings added to the word. The other feature of real-world Newspeak is that the word can change meaning between all the variant meanings as suits the interests of the Party (read Democrats here in the US, Labour in the UK, and the European Commission throughout the EU), even between when the word is spoken or written and when it is being comments on.

    The author has done a good job on documenting this with “violence”, which now, besides the dictionary meaning, seems to include expressing opinions that a hearer (esp. a leftist college student) disagrees with, which is then supposed to be regarded with the same horror normally felt with regard to the chopping off limbs or disembowelment.

    Another instance is instance “racist”, which can mean the dictionary definition, a person who criticizes a program or policy the left fancies benefits racial minorities (even if the criticism argues that it does not, and that a contrary policy would be more beneficial), a person who highlights (truthfully) an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence that Westerners will see as retrograde, or even simply a white person (the “all whites are racist” notion). The most common shift after the utterance is from the first two listed meanings to the last if after accusing a white person of being “a racist”, the implausibility of the dictionary definition applying to the accused is pointed out, so that the accusation can stand simply based on the identity of the accused.

    Likewise “health care” can mean the services provided by physicians and allied health professionals (the meaning in plain English), or health insurance, or government mandated and approved health insurance. Thus proposing any change to the ACA in the US, is called “taking way people’s health care” making it sound like those advocating it want to prevent people from obtaining the services provided by physicians and allied health professional, even if the proposer has an argument that the change would make obtaining those service easier. Likewise the ambiguity introduced by the inflation of meaning(s) allows the good feelings people have toward their family physician to be attached to the advocacy of some expansive government insurance program.

  40. Thirty or so years ago, when I was a San Jose Mercury News op-ed columnist, I wrote a column calling for people to reserve “Nazi” for Nazis, rather than “people I don’t like,” and “rape” for rape, rather than “unpleasant act.” I suggested these words had real meaning worth protecting. I didn’t realize how many words and concepts would be at risk.

    These days, I keep hearing of people who are “broken” by things that would make me upset or annoyed.

    On the other hand, I feel “silenced” by NewSpeak gobbledygook. When I read:

    “Epistemic violence in testimony is a refusal, intentional or unintentional, of an audience to communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange owing to pernicious ignorance.”

    I don’t know what it means to refuse to “communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange.” Refuse to understand the speaker? But if it’s through ignorance, it’s not a refusal so much as an inability to understand. And “reciprocate” and “exchange” implies the audience gets to say something. What is “testimony” doing in the sentence? For that matter why is “pernicious” there. Wouldn’t good old ignorance be enough? Does it mean the audience doesn’t applaud or snap their fingers or shout words of approval? Seriously, what is she saying?

    I feel . . . annoyed.

    • @Joanne, I share your annoyance.
      Just to let you know, the word “testimony” comes from Christianese. It’s something Christians say when they are telling their conversion stories: they are giving their testimony. The New Left is filled with ex-evangelicals who left the church due to it’s refusal to work towards social justice. Their lingo is found everywhere, as is their habit of giving words new meanings, accepting two contradictory truths as THE truth (cognitive dissonance), and their eternal search for safety and sanctuary in a world filled with evil, heaven being the ultimate goal where there are no dissenters. It takes over a decade to de-program and most of these people are fresh out, true believers looking for a new home and they have brought all the baggage with them. We can all expect to see another few years of this until the reality begins to sink in and these people’s bubble finally bursts. Hopefully they will be able to move on to healthier lives by then.

  41. Wow (applauds)! For someone who is tri-lingual and has studied four other langauges, this essay breathes truth. When you study foreign words when learning new languages you begin to realize how words in other languages often have nuances your own language doesn’t have. Example: “pain killer” is an impossibility in Finnish; no one “kills” pain in Finland; we medicate pain. American English is a language filled with war metaphors, something Finnish doesn’t necessarily recognize, making it more difficult to create accurate translations without a lot of footnotes. Add to this the burdern of people deciding to alter the meaning of words to create an emotional response in those who listen, it also screws up translations. “Erasing people with language” is another impossibility in Finnish. Erasing something makes the object vanish permanently. So when a Finn tries to translate “erasing trans people” she/he would have to either use a word that means “dismiss” or explain the meaning with a paragraph, which is usually impractical. What I’m getting at here is that when we change our language to promote an ideology, we create a ripple effect in world languages that no one can fully appreciate until perhaps a few years down the road. This makes the work of translators much harder, since the original meaning may no longer reflect the new understanding. And naturally, languages evolve, and slang is usually differentiated from written, formal language. But when academia begins to play fast and lose with words, we can expect to find unintended consequences in the future.

  42. Pingback: Thoughts on X

  43. Clayton says

    Excellent article! That’s for bringing insight and attention to this trend in our society. And thanks for the many meaningful comments in reply.

  44. I was surprised to get through the whole article, and the comments, without spotting the word “metaphor.” (Though I may have missed it.) It’s utterly normal for a word with a clear dictionary meaning to be used in a metaphorical sense. The intelligent listener appreciates that he is listening to a metaphor, and that the concept being referred to is only metaphoricaly related to the dictionary defintion.

    “Doing violence to the language” is an ancient metaphorical use of “violence” referring to the abuse of language in the service of untruth, and it long predates the current examples deployed by lefty philosophers and penpushers. (And it’s a metaphor that is amusingly relevant to the complaint in the main article.)

    After a while, if a new metaphor is useful, other people adopt it and eventually it can become a “dead metaphor” – ie a metaphor so old and congealed that hardly any users realise it started life a as metaphor. It has become part of the (now expanded) dictionary defintion. An obvious example is “inflated” in the title to this piece, where metaphor has expanded the concept of blowing air into a bag to make it bigger, to blowing extra meanings into a word to expand its range (and all sorts of other biggerizing activities like inflating the currency.)

    The question is whether the metaphor is useful or not. If it’s useful it catches on, if it’s not it remains in a corner of a dusty article. Of course, “useful” includes “useful to deceivers” so it’s can be worth trying to amend the understanding of a concept, by sly and misleading metaphorical usage, if that tells a lie you want to tell. It works for a while until other users realise that the word is now being used to refer to something entirely different, and so a new word is adopted to refer to the old concept.

    This is all as old as Time. The only recent changes are the technology for spreading metaphors, good and bad; and the left’s conquest of the news and publishing industries, giving them ephemeral dominance in the deceitful metaphor business.

Leave a Reply